Opponent preview: Michigan Wolverines

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This is the second of many opponent previews, leading us into the opening week of the season. Suggestions and comments are welcome. For part one, please check out the Purdue preview.

The Overview:

While there’s obvious anticipation for the opening game against Purdue, there’s no game that the Irish should look forward to more than the September 11th date with Michigan. Entering his third season in Ann Arbor, head coach Rich Rodriguez is a woeful 8-16 coaching the Wolverines, whose faithful have become largely split on the future of the head coach. While last season started with a perfect September and a national ranking, the Wolverines won only once after September 26th, beating Delaware State in mid-October for their fifth and final win, finishing 1-7 in conference and without a bowl bid for the second straight season.

Last time against the Irish:

There is no loss that eats at the stomach of Notre Dame fans more than the 38-34 defeat at the hands of the Wolverines in Ann Arbor. With just over three minutes left, and clinging to a 34-31 lead, the Irish opted to throw the ball on second and third down, missing on both attempts and allowing Michigan to preserve two timeouts and precious time on the clock. After a 29 yard Eric Maust punt, freshman Tate Forcier drove nine plays, using both timeouts before throwing the winning touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to bury the 18th ranked Irish.

Irish fans will point to a controversial overturn on an Armando Allen touchdown and some off-balanced Big Ten officiating, but even 490 yards of offense, 100 yard days for Allen, Michael Floyd, and Golden Tate, and 336 yards of passing from Jimmy Clausen couldn’t keep the Irish from giving away the football game, thanks to anemic defense and mediocre special teams.

Said head coach Charlie Weis after the game:

“I watched that tape a hundred times this morning, okay?
Just like when I watched it when it happened, just like their two guys
that were standing right on top of the play when it happened. From what
I understand, the TV copy on top of it, I still haven’t heard anyone
tell me there’s any evidence of Armando stepping out of bounds.
The way I thought the rule is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be
conclusive evidence. I’m perturbed at that call.”

Degree of Difficulty:

Of the 12 opponents, I rank  Michigan as the fourth most difficult on the schedule. I could make the argument that they’re anywhere from the second toughest to the eighth toughest, but there’s an aura attached to the maize and blue, and after last season’s upset defeat, you never know what might happen.

The Match-up:

It’s tough to gauge what’s coming out of the opposing locker room when the Wolverines face-off with the Irish on September 11. Michigan played horrific football down the stretch, free-falling after a promising 4-0 start. Offensively, Michigan returns just about every contributor from 2009, on a team that racked up 430 yards against the Irish defense. Whether or not last year’s hero, quarterback Tate Forcier plays over Denard Robinson is likely the major question for the Wolverines offensively, with the dynamic Robinson making strides in his passing game this offseason. Rodriguez has endured growing pains through two years as he has worked to recruit more speed onto his roster. Whether or not those players flourish in year three will likely determine his fate.

On defense, the Wolverines lose their best player in Brandon Graham, the disruptive pass rusher that went in the first round of the NFL draft. They look to freshman All-American Craig Roh to potentially fill his spot at DE, shifting down from outside linebacker. There is promise along the front line for the Wolverines in former blue-chipper Will Campbell and one-time Irish recruiting target Mike Martin, but the learning curve is steep for this group. Of real concern is the shaky Wolverine secondary, that’s been bludgeoned recently by transfer (J.T. Turner) and injury (Troy Woolfolk). If Michigan plans on stopping Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, they’ll do so with untested underclassmen and DBs that struggled mightily last season. 

How the Irish will win:

With a front-seven that graduated its best pass rushers and a secondary that belongs on the back of a milk carton, the Irish should have a field day throwing all over a Wolverine defense that can do little to slow Notre Dame’s numerous offensive weapons. The transition back to a 3-4 defense, along with a quick start for the Irish offense, will force Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson into throwing almost exclusively, a bad recipe for success with Bob Diaco’s pressure system confusing an offensive line that struggled last season. 

How the Wolverines will win:

If the Irish did anything well last year on defense, it was making opposing offenses look good. And after a third year learning Rich Rodriguez’s system, the Wolverines won’t need nearly as much help. Tackling mobile quarterbacks in space will once again be the Irish’s achilles heel, and both Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson will make big plays, getting the Irish to play another shoot out that’s decided down the stretch. While Michigan’s defensive coordinator Greg Robinson has been chastised, he’s beaten Notre Dame the past two times he faced them — once as the head coach of Syracuse in 2008, and running the Wolverines defense in 2009. The 80,000-plus that showed up to watch the Irish avenge last season’s mind-blowing loss will feel more of the same if the Irish can’t solve Michigan’s spread attack.

Gut Feeling:

There was nobody more surprised than I was last year when Michigan escaped the Big House with a 38-34 victory. While everybody in the locker room’s focus is on Purdue, there’s no doubt that the game against Michigan is the biggest for the Irish this season. With the advantage of practicing every day against an offense that’s similar to the one directed by Rich Rodriguez, and Michigan’s desperate situation in the secondary, I expect the Irish to exorcise some demons.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.